On a bright fall morning at Stanford, Tom Mullaney is telling me what’s wrong with QWERTY keyboards. Mullaney is not a technologist, nor is he one of those Dvorak keyboard enthusiasts. He’s a historian of modern China and we’re perusing his exhibit of Chinese typewriters and keyboards, the curation of which has led Mullaney to the conclusion that China is rising ahead technologically while the West falls behind, clinging to its QWERTY keyboard.
Now this was and still is an unusual view because Chinese—with its 75,000 individual characters rather than an alphabet—had historically been the language considered incompatible with modern technology. How do you send a telegram or use a typewriter with all those characters? How do you even communicate with the modern world? If you’re a Cambridge-educated classicist enamored with the Greeks, you might just conclude Chinese script is “archaic.” Long live the alphabet.
But, Mullaney argues, the invention of the computer could turn China’s enormous catalog of characters into an advantage.
Mullaney is the author of two forthcoming books on the Chinese typewriter and computer, and we discussed what he’s learned while researching them. His argument is pretty fascinating to unpack because, at its heart, it is about more than China. It is about our relationship to computers, not just as physical objects but as conduits to intangible software. Typing English on a QWERTY computer keyboard, he says, “is about the most basic rudimentary way you can use a keyboard.” You press the “a” key and “a” appears on your screen. “It doesn't make use of a computer’s processing power and memory and the cheapening thereof.” Type “a” on a QWERTY keyboard hooked up to a Chinese computer, on the other hand, and the computer is off anticipating the next characters. Typing in Chinese requires mediation from a layer of software that is obvious to the user.